Some years ago while I was serving as a bishop of a Brigham Young University ward, a young woman came to me for counsel concerning a marriage proposal. She really liked the young man but was strongly committed to not taking a step as important as marriage without receiving inspiration that it was right. She had been praying about whether to marry him and had received no answer. I assured her that the Lord would surely answer her prayers and that she should keep on praying.
The following Sunday she asked to see me again. She felt she was receiving no answer. I interviewed her and established that she was worthy. I again assured her that the Lord does hear and answer prayers and that she should continue praying.
The young man was really pressing her to make a decision. He loved her but felt she was stalling because she probably did not love him. He was approaching the time he might terminate the relationship. She was very concerned but felt she could not marry him without an answer from the Lord. I was very troubled by this. I knew the Lord answered prayers. I knew this young woman was worthy to receive answers to her prayers. Why was she not receiving an answer?
The key came to me in a moment of clear enlightenment. I told her she was expecting the Lord to completely make the decision for her, but He would not do that. Even a decision as important as marriage requires us to exercise our own agency. In Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–9 [D&C 9:7–9], Oliver Cowdery is told why he was not able to translate the Book of Mormon: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
“But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong.”
Like Oliver Cowdery, she had taken no thought except to keep asking the Lord. I told her she must exercise her own agency by studying it out in her mind, making a tentative decision, and then asking the Lord for a confirmation of her decision. I asked her to make two lists. On one list she was to place the things she liked about him and all the positives about marrying him. On the second list she was to outline all her doubts and anything she did not like about him or that was a negative. After a few days she was to evaluate the lists, make a tentative decision on her own, and then go to the Lord for confirmation of her decision.
The following Sunday she asked for a recommend for her temple marriage. I asked her if she was now sure. She felt certain it was right to marry him. I questioned how she had received her answer. She explained that each day as she looked at the two lists, she was crossing things off the list of negatives and adding to the list of positives. Her words were something like, “I just began to feel good about getting married, and I knew that my prayers were being answered.”
In our eagerness, it is possible to misinterpret our desires as inspiration. Dr. Carlfred Broderick, a retired professor of marriage and family counseling at the University of Southern California and a former stake president, wrote of an amusing experience which occurred as he greeted his oldest daughter returning home after attending Brigham Young University. “‘Daddy, Daddy,’ she cried as she ran to give me a hug, ‘Guess what? Eight boys had it revealed to them that they were to marry me, and that’s more than any other girl on our floor’” (One Flesh One Heart, 1986, 21).
Of course they had not all been inspired to marry her, and she had no obligation to the feelings of any of those young men unless she herself wished to accept a proposal of marriage and received a spiritual reassurance on her own.
One of the most precious gifts of earth life is agency, the right to freely make decisions. As we meet life’s challenges, we need the Lord’s help. The help He gives us generally will not come in a way which inhibits our agency or the growth we receive from overcoming difficulties. His guidance most often comes as we ask Him and are working ourselves to solve our own problems.